It’s been a staple of Bill Belichick’s Patriots defenses for years: take away the opponent’s top pass-catcher and force it to rely on secondary options.

Even this season, amid their worst start since 1995, the Patriots have been able to do that successfully.

Tyreek Hill caught a touchdown against New England in Week 2 but finished with just 40 receiving yards on nine targets. One week later, Garrett Wilson was targeted nine times and caught five passes for 48 yards. CeeDee Lamb, despite facing fifth- and sixth-string Patriots cornerbacks in Week 4, was held to four catches on six targets for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Chris Olave in Week 5: five targets, two catches, 12 yards. Davante Adams last Sunday: five targets, two catches, 29 yards. Even A.J. Brown back in New England’s season opener. Brown had a respectable seven catches for 79 yards in that one, but he topped 125 yards in four of his five games this season against non-Patriot foes.

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Keeping that streak alive this week, however, will be a herculean task. Because the Patriots are about to face their arch-nemesis — the one elite wideout on whom their traditional “make-them-play-left-handed” strategy never has worked: Stefon Diggs.

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The three-time Pro Bowl receiver has faced New England six times in the regular season since joining the Buffalo Bills in 2020. In nearly all of those meetings, he dominated:

2020, Week 8: six catches, 92 yards
2020, Week 16: nine catches, 145 yards, three touchdowns
2021, Week 13: four catches, 51 yards
2021, Week 16: seven catches, 85 yards, TD
2022, Week 13: seven catches, 91 yards, TD
2022, Week 18: seven catches, 104 yards, TD

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That four-catch, 51-yard outlier came in the memorable 2021 wind game, during which Patriots quarterback Mac Jones famously attempted just three passes as New England scored its only win over Buffalo in the post-Tom Brady era.

Exclude that, and Diggs is averaging 7.2 catches and more than 100 yards per game against the Patriots, with six total touchdowns. They’ve simply had no answer for Josh Allen’s No. 1 target.

And New England’s secondary will be shorthanded for this latest attempt.

Standout rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez, whom the Patriots drafted 17th overall to lock down wideouts of Diggs’ caliber, is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Patriots’ No. 2 corner, Jonathan Jones, has been hounded by injuries since the start of training camp, including a new knee ailment he picked up in last week’s loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Jones did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday, putting his status for Sunday in doubt.

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The Patriots swung a trade to reacquire former Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson after Gonzalez went down, but Diggs has owned Jackson in the past, beating him for two touchdowns in a 2020 meeting and another in ’21. Jack Jones also returned to practice this week, but it’s unclear whether the team plans to activate the second-year pro off injured reserve ahead of Sunday’s AFC East matchup.

Jack Jones, like Jackson, has excellent ball skills but can be hit-or-miss in coverage. And this would be the first regular-season action he’s seen since last December.

Rounding out the Patriots cornerback group are Myles Bryant, a slot/safety who’s been forced to play out of position for much of this season to account for the injuries around him, and Shaun Wade, a bottom-of-the-roster player who’s been limited in practice with a shoulder issue. Jalen Mills has cornerback experience, but the Patriots have opted to keep him at safety despite his limited playing time there this season. Marcus Jones is on IR with what might be a season-ending shoulder injury.

Regardless of who the Patriots tab to cover Diggs — and it’ll almost certainly be a joint effort between multiple defensive backs — they can expect a busy night. Diggs ranks third in the NFL in targets and receiving yards entering Week 7, tied for third in catches and tied for second in touchdown catches.

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Featured image via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images